Quality Assurance Process

Faisal Bari

A FRIEND driving a new Honda City that had travelled only 2,000 kilometres had a near miss on the motorway. One of the rear tyres burst while he was driving at 110 km per hour. He was very lucky that there was no traffic at the time and that he was able to keep the car under control as he pulled up to the edge of the road.

When I bought my last car four years ago, I remember the dealer explicitly told me to have the tyres changed and not to rely on the Pakistani company manufacturing them. When my friend told me about his incident, I asked him if he had been similarly advised by his car seller. He said that he had been given this advice but that he had ignored it. When my friend went to get the tyres of his vehicle changed, even the vendor said he should have had them changed as soon as he got the new car.

What is interesting is that clearly the tyre manufacturers are aware of this perception and the issue; a recent advertisement focuses on why people should not have the tyres of a new car changed. They clearly think that their tyres are good enough. But the perception in the market is divided: even if you do an internet search on the company and the quality of their product, you get a very divided opinion: some say the tyres are good, others feel they are not.

These tyres might indeed be good enough. I am not an expert in tyre technology to pronounce one way or the other. And if Pakistani car manufacturers, even when selling cars worth Rs 2.5-2.7 million, are using them, this must be after careful reflection. But it is surprising that even so, the strong perception about the tyres’ quality persists and several dealers still keep advising people they should get the tyres changed right after they buy a new car.

For me, the question here is different. Where is the regulatory structure of the country in all of this discussion? It would seem that we cannot believe the tyre manufacturers as they have an interest in selling their tyres. Neither can we give too much credence to the car manufacturers as it might be a regulatory requirement for them to use local tyres. So, who should we, the citizens of the country, rely on? Where is the local quality assurance mechanism and the local regulator? Do they not hear of stories about exploding tyres? Do they not even see advertisements on television that are talking of perceptions of tyre quality?

This is not the only product or the only time this issue has come up. It was only after a bus full of children had an accident in the Kallar Kahar area that it was revealed that the body-maker of the bus was at fault: the body was too soft and collapsed easily. When a number of children died in a CNG explosion in a van carrying children to school in Faisalabad, we found out that there are substandard tanks being used for CNG storage, and that sometimes installation of CNG kits is also of poor quality.

When a tanker spilled fuel on the road and over 200 people died in the fire that was caused, we came to know that most of the tankers that are being used to transport fuel across Pakistan are not safe and do not meet the quality standards that have been set for them. When buildings catch fire or collapse, we get to know that the construction was faulty or that fire regulations were ignored.

Though the issue of tanker safety is still being discussed this is largely because the incident is still fresh in the memory of people. In all of the other cases, we do not know what happened to the ‘investigations’ after the initial findings. Was anyone punished? More importantly, what was done to ensure better quality bodies for buses, better kits for CNG and better quality installation for these kits? If there were any changes, why have they not been communicated to the people? If history has any lesson, it is that nothing will come of the discussions about tanker safety. There will be some hue and cry, there will be some payments made to the injured and the families of the dead, and then all will be as it was.

So, when dealers tell me to change the tyres of a new car, should I not take that advice seriously even though it might just be an issue of perception? How can I distinguish the truth from falsehood here if it is my family and my life that are at stake? Should I be taking a risk for a few thousand rupees? If I can afford a car of Rs2m or so, why not get new tyres as well?

The issue is not just about cars, buses, tankers or buildings. It has to do with almost every product/service in the country. More effective or less, other countries do have many quality assurance mechanisms in place before products are allowed to reach the customers. And customers can invoke remedial measures when they feel that standards have been breached and/or when standards are not effective enough. We do not have any such assurance.

I do not know if the bottled water or milk I am drinking is safe, if the vegetables or meat I am having are safe or even if the medicines I am taking are at least of minimum acceptable quality. We do not have many options so we have to continue to use all items. But is it not high time for us, as a country, to think of creating more effective quality assurance mechanisms?

From the Dawn, Pakistan, Friday 28th July, 2017.

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Making reforms work

Faisal Bari

HERE is an interesting puzzle to consider. There have been, in the last decade or so, literally dozens of reforms, large and small, that have been announced and implemented in the area of school education across all of the provinces of the country. Yet, at the end of it all, learning outcomes of children have virtually not improved. Government schools still have a pretty poor reputation. What could possibly explain this?

Reforms in the education area have been quite significant, deep and in almost all sub-sectors of education. Teacher entry requirements, modes of selection, salaries, posting, transfer and promotion systems have been changed. Teacher and school monitoring systems have been completely revamped. Student testing has been changed. Curriculum and books have been overhauled several times. Education budgets, for all provinces, have more than doubled in the last decade. We have documented more than 70 or 80 major reforms that have been implemented in school education departments across the country in the last decade or so. Think of any recommendation that you could want to make, large or small, and it is very likely that it has been tried in the education sector.

Data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), based on testing of children from a very large sample from across all districts of the country, shows that there has been little or no improvement in student learning over the same period. There have been some gains in enrolment, especially at the primary level, but it is not clear if we will be able to sustain these gains as in recent times enrolment gains have also plateaued. It is not just ASER data that shows no gains in learning, even government examination results data, such as matriculation examination results and Punjab Examination Commission results of grade 5 and 8 examinations, also do not show any learning gains.

So, what has all the reform done and what will we have to do to improve learning?

If reforms had not been implemented at all or had not been implemented properly, the above mentioned situation would have made sense. Though it is hard to check on all of the reforms and there is some unevenness in how they have been implemented, a large percentage of the reforms mentioned have been implemented quite well. Teacher entry requirements, recruitment processes and salaries have increased significantly, teacher attendance has improved, school monitoring is better, student testing is being done regularly, and textbooks are being delivered in schools. We need to look elsewhere for a fuller explanation.

It is clear that some of the reform that has been done, across provinces, has little or nothing to do with student learning. There is no evidence, anywhere, that just distributing laptops or tablets to students or even teachers, or opening a small number of very expensive schools for a few children while the majority of children continue to attend regular government schools, improves student learning. But a number of provincial governments have continued with laptop distribution schemes and there are still schemes being implemented that are distributing tablets to teachers.

We need to build a much better feedback mechanism in our policy-making: policies should be based on some evidence and once policies are implemented, we need to know if they are achieving their objectives and if they are not, they need to be altered and/or tailored to ensure better results. Does giving laptops make any difference to learning? If not, should this be continued as an education programme?

Each reform could also have unintended consequences and these could work against getting the results we have been looking for. In the case of some reforms the unintended consequences are quite clear. As we raise teacher entry requirements from matriculation/intermediate and teacher certificate to bachelors/masters with an education degree, the base for teacher recruitment will become more urban, teachers from local community, in some communities, will be harder to recruit and the social distance, between teachers and students who attend government schools, will increase. This could work against the objectives on learning enhancement. As we introduce more tablets and internet-based material, it could work against teacher motivation.

It is, usually, not possible to work out all the consequences of a policy/intervention. We only know about them once an intervention has been implemented and there is data on consequences that can allow us to look at what the results were. The government needs to collect a lot of data on results. Once this data is available, learning from it can be organised. This brings us back to the issue of feedback loop and learning from experience. It does seem that bureaucracies find it difficult to be learning organisations. They need to figure out how to do course correction after initial action.

If raising teacher entry requirements is leading to higher social distance between teachers and students, can we alter pre-service and in-service teacher training to ensure better teacher socialisation and preparation? If traditional models of providing continuous professional development of teachers are not working, how can we re-design them to make them more effective? Policy change is a complex process and needs to be recognised as such. Strong data gathering and monitoring of results, based on initial interventions, is a must for effecting improvements in subsequent rounds.

Reforms have been pretty deep and extensive in the education area, and across provinces. But, so far, we have little to show for all the effort and expense that has gone in. This offers an interesting puzzle for us. It does seem that ‘systems’ level thinking might be a must to unravel this puzzle but this area requires a lot more thinking before we can be comfortable with the answers.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday July 14th, 2017.